September 3, 2020 Subject:
Luce and his Time
The trick of the con-artist is not to convince you that he is very clever - but that you are. An hour with Time magazine has always left me with the flattering illusion that I am one of the best-informed men on earth. Yet such men don’t usually subscribe to Time. (The title itself relates to the ‘time poor’ executive who has to settle for a Reader’s Digest view of the world.)
Not that Henry R. Luce was strictly a con-artist, though there was a touch of the charlatan about him, which sat uncomfortably with his religious puritanism. It would not be the only case of mixed messaging through his long and uniquely distinguished career.
China and Yale were the two big influences that formed Henry Luce (and his magazine). His father was a missionary in Shandong, passionately dedicated to saving the souls of the Chinese, a mission that his son viewed as no less sacred and never abandoned. At Yale, he edited the main university magazine, issuing solemn polemics against Bolshevism, another lifelong crusade. But it was the friends he made at Yale who became the creative team that would re-invent journalism. Their names mean nothing to us now, least of all Briton Hadden, struck down by a virus at just thirty-one. But it was Hadden who pioneered the dramatic outlawing of conventional prose. Every sentence must sound startlingly different from anything else ever written. People were irreverently described as ‘snaggle-toothed’ or ‘bag-jowled’. ‘The flabby-chinned, gimlet-eyed candidate shambled and snarled…’, ‘the temperament-ridden, firmly-corseted prima donna minced and simpered.’ There was much of the jaunty student spirit about this, often irritating when it was not actually offensive. Critics called it ‘grotesquerie’, ‘a nervous disease of the typewriter’, ‘stripping the heart out of prose’.
As for the news, it was simply lifted from other papers and then edited and slanted as Luce saw fit. But the formula worked, and Time magazine prospered mightily, right from its launch in 1923, helped on its way by the optimistic business atmosphere of the times.
Although the salaries were notoriously low, and the offices bare and bleak, I think I could have enjoyed working at Time Inc. in its exciting launch-phase (and not only because the female researchers were ordered to have good legs!), forming lively partnerships with this bright young team of Yalies. Except Luce himself, that is.
There is something chilling about this lonely, friendless autocrat whose smile never reached his ice-blue eyes, and who believed he communicated direct with God. His only known vice was chain-smoking. Food and drink meant nothing to him; in restaurants, he would simply continue the business meeting he had just come out of, oblivious of whether he had eaten or not.
Like many, he was impressed by Mussolini as the obvious ‘bulwark against communism’, but was slow to see through him, as others did. It was in his blood and bones to support the right-wing dictators, and this led to quite a lot of the slanted journalism that he was accused of. “We reject the stuffed dummy of impartiality” he said. The ‘believable lie’ was what he mastered, and some declared it to be deeply irresponsible.
After marrying his second wife, playwright Clare Boothe, he became a little more sociable. She was unbelievably glamorous, yet not without a self-critical faculty. When her first play flopped, she went straight back to her desk, determined to write a hit. It turned out to be The Women, notable for its all-female cast, and a huge success on stage and screen. When she was made Ambassador to Italy, Luce accompanied her there as her assistant, without too much indignity. (Neither of them ever had any sense of humour).
His last years were clouded by the failure of his dream of influencing China away from communism. Supporting intervention in Vietnam, he called it ‘one more chance for the American Century’. But it sounded more like ‘one last chance’ from the dying Luce.
It is impossible not to feel Luce’s influence on his biographer W.A. Swanberg, whose concise writing holds the attention in much the same way as Time - and Life and Fortune, dealt-with only in passing in this volume. There’s a lot to get through, World War II presenting a mass of international meetings with heads of state, which could have made for quite an indigestible load. But with Swanberg’s clean-swept prose, there’s not one case of excessive verbiage, not a dull sentence to be found.